How one feels about the biopic Bob Marley: One Love, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (King Richard), may ultimately depend on one’s own history with the Jamaican reggae superstar. Even some of Marley’s biggest fans might not be aware of the huge influence Marley’s reggae had on so many other genres of music, including early punk and new wave bands, such as The Clash and The Police. Already loving Marley’s music certainly will help to make learning about his journey more interesting.
Kingsley Ben-Adir, who portrayed another legendary icon, Malcolm X, in Regina King‘s One Night in Miami…, takes on the unenviable task of bringing Marley back to life, working with a director, who has already earned a reputation for bringing out the best in his actors, which is the case here as well.
The film does not begin at the onset of Marley’s career, but instead, in 1976, when he is already Jamaica’s biggest home-grown superstar due to his music with The Wailers. The country is on the verge of a Civil War with a political conflict that threatens to tear the country apart, so Marley sets up a major music festival called “Smile Jamaica” to try to bring the country together. Not everyone is happy about this plan, and after an assassination attempt on Marley, he decides to leave the country and move to England, which is in the midst of its own political turmoil.
For some, the thought of another musical biopic at a time when they have been so pervasive might be reason enough to be dubious of Green’s third movie about a real-life person. It certainly does hit many beats that seem right out of the Biopic 101 playbook, especially with the perfectly fine flashbacks to earlier times between Bob and his wife Rita, developing his musical style and spirituality. In some ways, it feels like the screenplay for One Love is trying so hard to avoid so many biopic clichés that it fully falls into them whenever it tries to add more drama to an already tumultuous story.
Ben-Adir throws himself so fully into the role of Marley, from his love of athletics to his violent streak and his sense of humor, it’s impossible not to marvel at the subtleties at such a brilliant performance. Even so, one must draw an equal amount of attention to Lashana Lynch (No Time to Die) as Rita Marley, further proof of the adage, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” The importance of Rita in Bob Marley’s life, including his introduction to Rastafari beliefs does not keep the singer from having dalliances with other women, making the film’s title that much more ironic, but the patience she shows towards her husband requires a performance on par with Aunjanue Ellis in King Richard, even more impressive since Lynch is as hard to recognize in her role as Ben-Adir is as Marley.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast around them just aren’t as strong, and you can feel that. Many of the other characters around Bob aren’t introduced particularly well, so even someone fairly well versed on the music industry of the time as myself had no idea that one of the characters was Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. And then, there are the heavy Jamaican accents, which sometimes make even the main two characters difficult to understand. Subtitles, as unrespectful as they might have been, are sometimes necessary.
Whenever One Love starts to falter around Ben-Adir’s performance, the one thing it always has to pull it back up is Marley’s music. Any time the movie lags even slightly, there’s a tune from The Wailers that perks the viewer back up again, whether it’s a significant live performance, some time with the group jamming in the studio, or merely Marley strumming on a guitar.
Green’s below-the-line team does commendable work, particularly recreating Jamaica and London from the ’70s, and the hair, makeup and costume teams do terrific work pulling Adair and Lynch fully into their roles. It may be little surprise that Green reunited with much of his King Richard team with Bowers finding a way of introducing score that enhances Marley’s music rather than detracting from it.
Marley and his music make One Love a far more potent biopic than might have been the case in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. You may have to care at least a little bit about Marley or his music to fully appreciate what Green and his cast and crew have done with the film, which isn’t perfect, but it could have been far worse.
Awards Potential: If Paramount thought they could get Ben-Adir an Oscar nomination, they would have released this in November or December.
Box Office Potential: This is an interesting case, because the popularity of Marley and his music should make this a huge hit, but other than last year’s Oppenheimer, biopics have not been doing that well at the box office. Case in point: Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
Overall Score: B+
Bob Marley: One Love opens in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, Feb. 14.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Lashana Lynch, Micheal Ward, James Norton, Michael Gandolfini,
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Screenwriter: Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, Zach Baylin, Reinaldo Marcus Green
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Cadelle Marley, Rita Marley, Ziggy Marley
DP: Robert Elswit
Production Design: Chris Lowe
Costume Design: Anna B. Sheppard
Editor: Pamela Martin
Score by: Kris Bowers